Zheng & Both lead Macau Open
China's Zheng Wen-gen will send a "Thank You" note to Ernie Els after firing a six-under-par 65 for the joint first round lead with Australian Marcus Both in the US$275,000 Macau Open today.
While many pundits were expecting former two-time champion Zhang Lian-wei to challenge for the opening day's honour at Macau Golf and Country Club, it was the lesser known Zheng who delivered the goods with a seven-birdie round.
Chinese Taipei duo Wang Ter-chang and Lu Wei-lan ended the day a stroke back while defending champion Jason Knutzon was amongst those sharing fifth place following a 67, and enjoyed the pleasure of outscoring playing partner and former Masters winner Fred Couples by one stroke.
The day belonged the 38-year-old Zheng, who like his namesake was amongst the pioneers of professional golf in China . But while Zhang has soared to international fame with five career victories on the Asian Tour which includes wins over Els, Nick Price and Colin Montgomerie, Zheng has struggled, missing 21 cuts in 29 appearances in Asia since 1997.
Two early exits at the recent Johnnie Walker Classic and BMW Asian Open, both in China , had Zheng thinking about his game and it all started to make sense when he watched world number three Els, who won the BMW event, at the practice range.
"Ernie's grip is a strong one and mine was a lot weaker. So I changed my grip recently and it obviously has worked out well here. This is my best ever round on this course. I must thank Ernie," said a delighted Zheng.
Zheng, whose highest career finish on the Asian Tour is a tied 23rd outing, started strongly with three consecutive birdies from the second hole, peppering the flags with crisp iron play. He roared home with four more birdies against a lone dropped shot at the signature par three 17th hole which plays dramatically downhill onto a narrow green.
"I drove nicely from off the tee and my irons were accurate today. I putted well for the birdies which were inside 12 feet on most occasions. It's a coincidence that I've played better than Zhang Lian-wei but I did feel good out there," he said.
Zheng has made a just over US$16,000 in earnings since 1997 while his famous compatriot, the first Chinese to play at the US Masters last year, has won over US$850,000. But the co-leader has his sights firmly on the US$44,412 top prize in Macau .
"I've not played well over the years as I guess I've been lazy with my practice. But I'm working harder now at my game. I didn't play much abroad earlier on as it was difficult to get visas but now, it's becoming easier," said the Zhongshan-based Zheng.
Both, winner of the Sanya Open in 2003, had a sizzling start, chipping in for birdie on his first hole of the day at the 10th. His only blemish was a double bogey on eight where he flew the green with the wrong club in hand. "I'm very happy with that, considering how I played in the pro-am. The course wasn't easy today but I made the most of the opportunities. I hit some great iron shots and holed a few putts, which was nice.
"I've been playing quite well but without getting the results. It feels like it's been coming for a while and it's nice to put in a good round together," said Both, currently ranked 20th on the Asian Tour money ranking.
The sweet-swinging Couples, second at the SK Telecom Open in Korea last week, stayed within striking reach of the leaders, shooting five birdies against two dropped shots. "It was a good 68. I missed some chances out there but then again, I saved a few. Looking at the scores, I'm pleased to be three back on the first day. It was getting sweaty on our back nine and I misjudged my approach on 13 and shot past the green for bogey. Made another bogey on 16 but it was good to birdie the last after two good shots to the back of the green. I can't shoot even par at any time here and expect to be challenging," said the American, a 15-time winner on the US PGA Tour.
After beating Padraig Harrington in a head-to-head duel to lift the Macau Open title 12 months ago, Knutzon was thrilled to outscore his idol as his defence got off to an impressive start. "It was a lot of fun playing with Fred. I grew up as a Fred Couples fan so it was a pleasure to play with him. I hit a lot of good shots and made some putts. It's a great start. Hopefully it will continue. It's a long way to go, Fred could have had a few more under," said Knutzon.
Local favourite Zhang, winner here in 2001 and 2002, endured a sluggish front half of 37 before roaring home with three birdies to end his day four off the pace. The man who considers Macau his second home wasn't a happy man. "My front nine wasn't good and I'm not happy. It was very hot and sweaty and my concentration wasn't there. I missed some short ones on the 15th and 16th holes but the consolation is that I'm not far back. It's a nice surprise to see Zheng Wen-gen on the board as he missed his last two cuts. But I'm not far back," said the former winner.
Thailand 's Thaworn Wiratchant, second on the Order of Merit, opened with a 71 with four birdies against just as many bogeys as compatriot Pornsakon Tipsanit took the top Thai honours with an impressive 67.
Leading first round scores
65 - Marcus Both (AUS), Zheng Wen-gen (CHN)
66 - Lu Wei-lan (TPE), Wang Ter-chang (TPE)
67 - Suk Jong-yol (KOR), Terry Pilkadaris (AUS), Jarrod Lyle (AUS), Jason Knutzon (USA), Jason Dawes (AUS), Pornsakon Tipsanit (THA)
68 - Ron Won ( USA ), Gilberto Morales (VEN), Corey Harris ( USA ), Ross Bain (SCO), Fred Couples ( USA )
69 - Unho Park (AUS), Chen Tze-chung (TPE), Richard Backwell (AUS), Lin Chie-hsiang (TPE), Huang Tung-liang (TPE), Lu Wen-teh (TPE), Zhang Lian-wei (CHN), Andrew Pitts (USA)
70 - Shang Lei (CHN), Jochen Lupprian (GER), Uttam Singh Mundy ( IND ), Olle Nordberg (SWE), Jonathan O'Sullivan (AUS), Rahil Gangjee ( IND ), Somkiet Srisanga (THA), Alejandro Quiroz (MEX), Martin Doyle (AUS), Kurt Barnes (AUS), Anthony Kang ( USA ), Amandeep Johl ( IND ), Brad Oh (KOR)
71 - Chang Hong-Wei (TPE), Arjun Singh (IND), Gerry Norquist (USA), Adam Le Vesconte (AUS), Glenn Joyner (AUS), Gaurav Ghei (IND), Shiv Kapur (IND), Airil Rizman Zahari (MAS), Kao Bo-song (TPE), Rashid Ismail (MAS), Boonchu Ruangkit (THA), Yeh Chang-ting (TPE), Soe Kyaw Naing (MYN), Thaworn Wiratchant (THA), Edward Loar (USA), Adam Blyth (AUS),
Harmeet Kahlon (IND), Bryan Saltus (USA), Lu Tze-shyan (TPE)
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